Young AdultAh, young adult fiction. Those in the industry recognize it as the big money maker. Anyone who is trying to get their name noticed in fiction these days wants to write a YA novel and why not? Agents keep picking up more and more YA titles and the YA section in bookstores keeps getting bigger and bigger. If you can get teens and young adults to love your work, you’re tapping into an industry that saw a growth of 300% from 2011 to 2012. It’s a dominating force and it’s only gaining more ground with the release of book-to-movie adaptations like The Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures (slated for a Valentine’s release), and The Mortal Instruments Series (slated for a August release). Though books such as The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye are often called the grandfathers of YA fiction, it was Twilight that made this category of books explode.
I can’t tell you what happened or how the whole YA market evolved, but being in this interesting generation of readers, I might be able to provide a little insight. Back in the late 90s, early 00s, Harry Potter mania took over the US. Every American child wanted to go to Hogwarts. Some dropped off the Potter bandwagon, but those that stuck with him until the very end wanted more. Of course we wanted more stories involving Harry’s world, but we also wanted to read more. We wanted more things that involved some semblance of magical, mythical beings. I was never one who was into epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, but a fantasy like Harry Potter was more my style. There was magic, it was “another world,” but it wasn’t so involved as Tolkein’s work. Even though the Potter books technically can qualify as an epic fantasy, it was just more manageable. And I think that’s part of the charm of the books and what more readers who grew up with the books wanted. Lo and behold we sort of got something like that with Twilight! Except because we’re older and because for whatever reason a vast majority of Potterheads ended up being girls (maybe because most of the guys decided to play video games?) the concept of a sparkly vampire boyfriend seemed appealing even though most readers laughed at the idea of a vampire sparkling. Or got angry and threw the book at a wall, took a deep breath, and continued reading…like me. But for whatever reason something in me clicked and I decided I needed more books like that. Not necessarily books with sparkling vampires, but I wanted more fantasy books with a teen lead dealing with teen issues and out-of-this-world issues like saving the world because I was a teen and it was relate-able.
And for whatever reason more and more people are finding these books and loving them. And why not? They’re written exceptionally well and written at a fast pace so you can, if you’re a fast reader, devour a series in a weekend if need be. And just like adult books, you have your selection of bubble gum fiction (that is, fiction that’s enjoyable and fast to read through, but you wouldn’t want to read it again) and exceptionable fiction like Looking for Alaska.
But there’s a problem. More and more indie authors are jumping onto the bandwagon for various reasons and they have no idea how to write a modern YA novel. Things have changed drastically since S.E. Hinton wrote her debut novel back in the late 60s. For one, if you’re an author and you’ve seen a Twilight movie and think Harry Potter qualifies as YA, just put that YA idea out of your head. You’ll be doing everyone a favor. Here’s the issue that I’ve been seeing: Too many authors are writing down to this audience. Yes, YA fiction is under the children’s fiction umbrella, but my god! You’re writing to children who should be in high school. Last I heard, they have a big vocabulary. Technically the age group for this category is 12-18, and you could very well write something that would appeal to a 12-year-old, but I think you’re better off writing middle grade to appeal to that group of readers. Though not the industry standard, I define YA books to be for anyone in high school, which is 14-18 and where most YA protagonists end up being anyway. I think if you try to write for the younger end of the YA spectrum, your work ends up sounding too much like middle grade. So just pretend that everyone reading your book is like 15 and if you don’t have too many dark themes, your work will be perfectly fine for the younger end of the YA audience.Other things I’ve noticed is that authors who don’t know anything about the modern YA novel make their books a little too cute and clean. Though I keep my characters in my Zincian Legend series pure, for the most part, it doesn’t feel like an episode of Leave it to Beaver like some books I’ve read. Remember, we’re in 2013 now. Children are smarter and less innocent than they were twenty years ago. Don’t think your protagonist isn’t allowed to cuss, use drugs, think dark thoughts, or have sex. You can include it (you don’t have to, but you can). Believe it or not, teens do that and including it, even in bits, makes it more realistic. Remember: Even Jesus had his moment of doubt.
Let’s also talk about word count. Industry standard puts YA books at about 60K on average. Yes, there are some books that do average around there, but if you take a look at the best-sellers you’re looking books that are 80-100K words easy. Every Twilight book is 500+ pages. Hunger Games runs around the 400 page mark. You don’t need to cut corners or worry about wordiness. Your audience will read your book if it’s good.
When tackling the elusive YA novel, try to lose the adults. Somehow, someway, you need to lose them. Many YA novels have parents dying and leaving the protagonist an orphan (guilty of that!) or whisking the kid away without a word of warning to said parents. I’m not saying there can’t be any adult in the story, because there can, but that adult can’t help your protagonist in a big way. They have to stand back in the shadow and let your protagonist do their own thing. And that’s why it’s easier to just ditch the adults. Part of the reason is the whole inward vs. outward thing that marks the difference between a middle grade and YA as taken from YA Highway:
This one is less obvious. Middle grade characters are focused internally; it’s about self-growth, learning who you are. Young adult characters are focused more externally, noticing the world around them and how they fit in, how they affect things. Often, that’s a huge part of a YA character’s growth throughout his or her story; moving from a naturally selfish stage in life to becoming more aware of the feelings and situations of others.
So what are some YA books I recommend that you read and not watch?
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare
- Beastly by Alex Flinn
- Pig Boy by J.C. Burke
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton